Leaving a Trace

The Girl I Left Behind Me: Poems of a Lifetime
, Mairi MacInnes
(132pp, 9.95, Shoestring)


It was the Russian poet Osip Mandelstam's widow, Nadezhda, (her name translates as 'hope'), who, in the first of two essential-reading memoirs (Hope Against Hope and Hope Abandoned) of life under the repressive regime of Stalin, writes of human beings leaving a trace as if it were an imperative: leaving a legacy, providing evidence one has existed and has served important truths. Dylan Thomas said something similar, though with a romantic flourish, when he wrote that he 'sang in my chains like the sea.' The same urge is present in graffiti: Kilroy was here.

Mairi MacInnes is in her eighties. She has published six previous volumes, three in America and three in Britain and written two novels and a memoir, Clearances
, which Shoestring has also recently published. The title and subtitle of the collection under review clearly imply a desire to leave behind something of value as well as a wish to confirm a lifetime's achievement. Inevitably it feels valedictory. That said, the poems evince what Richard Wilbur, quoted on the back cover, describes as a 'strong sensibility capable of fierce attachments to familiar and natural things.' In her poem 'Reading Cavafy in Translation' she describes herself as

    A woman who's ample and hopeful and hardworking,
     Bothered by sentiment, neither stylish nor austere.

She has been called a poet of place - though 'places' is a better word. Born in County Durham and educated in Yorkshire and at Oxford, she has been, before coming back in retirement from thirty years spent in America to live in York, something of a traveller. There are poems that show her as a sensitive observer of Germany after the Second World War where she went to live in 1954, of a number of places in America, Britain and elsewhere - often travelling by car or train - with anecdotal portraits of characters met on the way. Sometimes we find her lamenting a loss of the sharp perceptions of childhood as in 'Hardly Anything Bears Watching':

     When I was young,
     The pavement kerbs were made of stone,
     A substance like my fingernails.

     It is not like that any more.
     I do not see
     The essential life of inorganic things.
     Humanity has covered all.

This however is often belied by a sharpness of observation we find everywhere. In 'The Fields of Light', the fourth part of a very fine sequence called 'Horses', is a good example:

     Again, again, a presence in the clearing
         that was the clearing itself,
     the row of firs in snowy quilts,
         the parting of sky and snow.
     Again, again, the cold unpainted room,
         the dead fire, the tap's needle of cold,
     the cooling skins of the bed, the kettle's fuss,
         the bang and commotion of the furnace.
     Twigs kindled, waggling fingers of warmth.
         The days began by writing themselves.
     Dark words ploughed the fields of light.

To label MacInnes a poet of place is to limit her scope. Clearly her gift for the descriptive but she is more than that. Her range is diverse and extensive. There is a wonderful sequence of poems that shows she intimately understands cats; poems in which she gives life to a poignant incident in Hiroshima, in which she imagines the history of an old house in New Jersey, poems about Antigone, about struggling with the idea of God, sawing down a tree; there are moving elegies and poems that celebrate, in MacNeice's marvellous phrase, 'the drunkenness of things being various'. She also writes in a variety of styles which makes it impossible to characterise her work simply. As Theodore Weiss says, her language 'matches its occasions'. Her lifetime has been rich in experience, real and imagined, which she has sensitively recorded in poem after poem. It's an achievement to be proud of. As she says at the end of the final poem in the book called 'A Word of Acknowledgement' which is about the Isle of Skye and the shameful business of the Highland clearances:

     I can pay my bill at the inn and speak as I wish
     and walk past a hundred hovels, all of them roofless
     under the rain, and write a verse on the matter.

     Matt Simpson 2008